Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?
The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 a.m. on Kliman Online. From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Word of Mouth …
… The former Formosa Cafe, Sichuan Village (14005 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy., Chantilly; 703-631-5888) squats in a corner of a monstrosity of a strip mall in Chantilly. There's a sign outside trumpeting the all-you-can-eat buffet in big letters. Not promising.
But amid the General Tso's chicken and the barbecue ribs, the egg rolls and the shrimp fried rice, there's a lot of memorable cooking to be found here, courtesy of the crew of Sichuan-trained chefs who were brought over to run the kitchen. The menu encompasses some 300 dishes, which means ordering requires a lot of reading and a lot of guesswork. The owners, David Qin and his wife, Xiao Rong Lu, have color-coded the menu to help: yellow is hot and spicy; orange is incendiary. The Homeland Security-style warnings should help to direct you to the dishes that define the menu, but allow me to add one more bit of assistance: order anything with the name Chengdu in the title. That's the name of the provincial capital of Sichuan province.
Chengdu pork turns up a bowl the color of blood, a dish that looks more soup than meat; floating in the fiery liquid are tender, thin strips of meat, slices of hot pepper and cabbage. Kung Pao chicken, Chengdu-style, looks familiar, but the sauce coating the soft cubes of meat means business; more garlicky and gingery than what we're accustomed to, it's also shot through with so many red peppers that you stop thinking of them as a seasoning and begin to embrace them as an ingredient.
One dish that doesn't bear the title Chengdu is ma po tofu, but the dish originated there. Not only that, says the restaurant, but the dish can be traced generations back to the same family that runs Sichuan Village. True? Who knows? But the combination of soft, jiggly cubes of tofu and a smoky sauce that simultaneously makes the tongue numb (courtesy of the famous numbing peppercorn called ma la) and burns the mouth is the real deal.
So often do I send people to Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard (2621 University Blvd. West, Wheaton; 240-290-9988) for dim sum that I have come to think of it primarily as a dim sum spot. I got a bracing reminder of the narrowness of that perception when I sat down recently with friends to a long, multicourse dinner at Janet Yu's expansive and comfortable dining room.
Here, again, the menu is vast and sprawling; you have to know what to order. That often means going with a casserole; casseroles are a staple of Hong-Kong style cookery, and Hollywood East offers an array of possibilities. On this night, though, a crock of short ribs and turnips may have been the weakest dish on the table. Shrimp is a mainstay of the dim sum menu, and I opted to order it in two different preparations — in one, the crustaceans were perfectly steamed (they had a pleasing pop when you bit into them) and bathed in a creamy wasabi sauce; in another, they had been fried and doused with a black pepper sauce. Both were excellent. One of the things that distinguishes the kitchen at Hollywood East from most of its cohorts is the saucing, which is almost always controlled and tight; no goop.
The two knockouts? The two dishes that were least labor-intensive. A dish called simply "anchovy omelette," brought a puffy, eggy disc sliced into eighths, more a frittata than a conventional omelette and layered with flakes of imitation crab. The little fish weren't visible, but their pungent saltiness gave the frittatta its flavor and fascination. Even better was ling fish, steamed and sauced simply with soy sauce and thin slivers of garlic; the richness of its flesh was comparable to sable, only if anything more unctuous and more luscious. This might be the most elegant, luxurious dish in the area for its price: sixteen bucks. And it easily fed three. …
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An oversight, truly. Although the place is a lot more interesting, as you suggest, for its atmosphere than for its cuisine.
Thanks for keeping me on my toes, and let's hope last week's chatter is here again this week (and why not? what have we all got that's better or more important than this at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning? Hmmm?)
Who says I haven't, Mojitos & Tapas — er, Warrenton?
I know it doesn't always come across this way, but I go to a lot more restaurants than I write about. And I eat a lot more mediocre food than good food.
Which isn't to say that Mojitos & Tapas is mediocre. I'm just saying.
When I have something to write, I will.
My take: Expensive. It's an ideal sort of place for a boss to take you out to wine you and dine you.
It's a steakhouse experience, in a way — big checks, high rollers, grand, full-of-flourish presentations … only with fish, not slabs of beef.
Haven't been yet. Sorry.
Andrew Evans, the chef at the Inn, has a real fondness for Thai flavors. I love his Thai curry bouillaibaise. I have high hopes for the new place.
The question is, is it worth an hour-plus drive to a Thai restaurant, even a good one, when there are so many good ones close at hand?
The shaved rib eye, I'd probably go to Mike Smollen at My Butcher and More, in Gambrills, Md., for that. I wrote about Mike almost two years ago. I think his shop is one of the best in the area — a legitimate, old-fashioned butcher shop, the kind where you can have the meats trimmed to your exact specifications. And where the meats are always quality to begin with.
The rolls? The ideal would be to order them from Amoroso's Baking Co. That's the Philly company that makes the legendary cheesesteak and hoagie rolls.
But I don't think they do retail, only wholesale, so I'd probably hit the Italian Store in Arlington or Littieri's in DC. And I'd probably get the provolone from there, too.
Why? Because I'm critical?
I'm critical because I'm a critic.
I enjoy a lot of places, a lot of dishes, that I don't think are all that good.
Neither. How's that?
Although, of the two, I prefer the Capital Grille by a small margin.
No, my favorite steakhouses in the area are, frankly, a lot more metrosexual than old boy's club: Charlie Palmer Steak, Ray's the Steaks (and Ray's the Classics) and BLT Steak.
My five best, in no particular order:
Thai X-ing in DC, Nava Thai and Ruan Thai in Wheaton, and Thai Square and Bangkok 54 in Arlington. Interesting,
not so incidentally, that the Wheaton spots and the Arlington spots are so close together, geographically speaking.
Well, I guess I wish I'd eaten there with your dad, then.
I didn't find anything about my last meal there all that good. Memorable? Yes, definitely — thanks to the belly dancing and also to the comfy surroundings and excellent, attentive service.
I prefer the location in Silver Spring.
What do I suggest? I suggest Kinkead's. Sit at or near the bar, order up a plate of oysters (fresh, cool, well-shucked), engage in some banter with the bar men, and then settle in for a night of excellent fish and seafood.
You've got me thinking, though. What makes an American restaurant American?
It would seem to me that the more kinds of people being seated — people of every background, of every class — the more quintessentially American the place. Service should not be geared to the well-off and the well-dressed, to the upper crust of the society; it should welcome any and all, and in any and all manner of dress. It would also seem that the more various the cuisine, the better — with the dishes on the menu coming from a vast range of sources, from Asia, from Europe, from Latin America, etc.
That doesn't describe Kinkead's. I wonder what it describes. What restaurant fits that model?
See, I didn't say that. I never said that. I never said "best."
What I said was that the kind of Italian the chatter was asking about — grandma-style Italian, old-school red-sauce Italian — is really hard to come by in DC.
What have you got against Baltimore? I still remember Reggie Jackson, griping about his one season there: "The only problem with Baltimore is, it's in Baltimore." Ah, Reggie. Baltimore's close by, it's interesting, it's got texture, it's full of real people. What's not to like about that?
The problem with DC is, all the Italian food that's worth talking about is generally of the expense-account variety.
Locanda on the Hill is one of the exceptions. So is A La Lucia in Alexandria. And you've got Littieri's and the Italian Store for subs and such.
Mediocre? Really? Either you came in with too high of an expectation — this is a take-out-only operation in the basement of a townhouse, after all — or you've been getting the wrong things. I don't know; the salmon poached in red curry rocked my world.
I have other DC Thai suggestions, but not other DC Thai recommendations. Nothing gets me excited.
Now, Kanlaya Thai near the Verizon Center is thoroughly decent, and I find myself there before and after Wizards games for the panang curry. I enjoy the dish. I enjoy the place. As I said earlier, there are a bunch of places like this in the area. But just because I enjoy something when I go doesn't mean I think it's good, or great, or worthy of being showered with praise.
You're not the only one!
You're writing from U St., which means you're close to a couple of good, quickie spots — Oohhs & Aahhs for fried chicken and mac n cheese, and Mocha Hut for eggs and toast (brioche, not white bread) or salmon cakes and grits.
If I'm wrong, and you're actually downtown downtown, let me tip you to a place that you've probably never heard of: The Best Sandwich Place, which is hidden from the street and sits inside an office building that houses Borders on 18th and L.
Unlike a Quizno's or a Subway, you can smell the smell of roasted meat when you walk in. Most likely, it's the turkey breast, which is carved fresh in front of you for some of the sandwiches. I like a concoction that tops off the turkey slices with cranberry sauce. A little — well, not so little; this is a real overstuffed sandwich — taste of Thanksgiving in Spring.
I have. There's a dish there — Hae Kuen, an appetizer of shrimp and pork wrapped in bean curd skin and served with a cucumber dipping sauce — that, to me, is all by itself worth making the trip for. I also enjoy the whole crispy fish.
It's a nice place, very comfortable, more appointed than many.
In the end, though, what it comes down to for me is that it's just so darn sweet so much of the time. Some of the dishes are like candy. I want more pungency, more sharpness, in my dishes. More funk. More fragrance.
But this is not by any means a bad restaurant. It's a good restaurant, very well run. It will appeal to some more than others. I think it does an Americanized style of Thai food very well. But, generally speaking, I'm looking for something else from my Thai restaurants.
Producer's note: You can find the Dirt Cheap Eats list here.
I know — isn't that pad thai terrific?
There are some misses, to be sure, but I've been five times now and always look forward to going back. And such a pretty space, too. And such gracious service. The place is a winner.
A good, active thing?
Hm. I'm not sure being in a restaurant qualifies, but I think going to a churrascaria like Fogo de Chao, in Penn Quarter, would be a lot of fun. Expensive, but fun.
A churrascaria is an all-you-can-eat extravaganza — the gaucho-dressed servers parade long skewers of meat throughout the dining room, and you indicate if you want to keep going or if you're done with a small, color-coded placard. There are, I believe, more than twenty varieties of meats (roasted, sliced from the skewer) on offer every single night, and the place is about as festive as a restauranti gets. It's an instant good time.
I'm visiting Washington DC and am staying in the Dupont Circle area with my girlfriend. I was wondering, is there an inexpensive place that we can eat breakfast at each morning in the Dupont area, we are staying at the Hotel Palomar Washington Dc, A Kimpton Hotel. Also, are there inexpensive to moderate priced restrauants for lunches and dinners that you recommend. The cusine can be from Asian, Thai, South American, Italian, almost any type of food is fine. Thank you, Ken
Inexpensive for breakfast in Dupont … You know, I'm drawing a blank.
But there's a wealth of possibilities for you otherwise. Zorba's Cafe, just north of the metro on 20th St., is a great, quick, cheap place for lunch; good tabbouleh, good hummus, good gyros, etc.
And P St., where you'll be staying, is a really good street for eats, one of the best in the city. There's pretty good sushi at Sakana — focus on the rolls — and at Uni (look for the dishes that have been touched with a blowtorch, like the lightly torched salmon nigiri).
Alberto's (note: the entrance is downstairs), has good, thin-crust pizza; there's also Pizzeria Paradiso for boutique pies, and Al Tiramisu for decent, semi-casual Italian (just be careful about ordering one of the specials without asking about prices).
Enjoy. And be sure to drop us a note to let us know how your eating adventures turned out.
That's it for this week, everyone. I'm off to some eating adventures of my own.
Eat well, be well, and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 …